Water was consistently in the news in 2016, perhaps more often than in years past - think of the drought that moved beyond California to the U.S. Southeast and Massachusetts, or the Democratic presidential primary that took place in Flint, Michigan against the backdrop of lead contamination, harming so many families. Plus, private industry began taking steps to reign in water waste. So, 2016 was a water reuse reality check, let's look at the reasons why:
1. Droughts Are Becoming More Common - and It's Not Just California:
The ongoing drought in California continues to ravage the state's robust agricultural industry. More than one-third of vegetables in the U.S. and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts are grown in California. However, farms are increasingly dependent on the limited availability of groundwater.
While it is the sixth year of drought in California, southern states like Alabama and Georgia are new to the crisis - where the drought is lowering corn yields and leaving farmers struggling to feed their cattle. Drought also plagued Massachusetts all summer - the lack of precipitation reduced the fall's apple production by about one-third in the Commonwealth - one of many decreases among apple-growing states. And even further north in Alberta Canada, the energy industry is feeling the pressure as regulators restrict their access to rivers.
2. Tainted Water Made Headlines - and Devastated Families:
Lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan was a huge story and prompted President Obama to declare a federal state of emergency there. By then, pipes had corroded and lead was leaching into the water, leading to disastrous consequences including skin lesions hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss and depression among residents.
Flint is just the tip of the iceberg: A recent Reuters examination of lead testing results from all over the U.S. found almost 3,000 areas with higher rates of lead poisoning than what we saw in Flint, resulting in lower IQs and stunted development.
And it's not only lead contamination: A recent report from New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection's Drinking Water Quality Institute highlights an alarming difference in opinion between state and federal officials on safe levels of perfluorinated acid in drinking water - PFOA has been linked to cancer and other health concerns. According to The Intelligencer: "The amount of PFOA the EPA says is safe for millions of Americans to consume in drinking water actually is not [safe]. If the institute's criticism is correct, it would mean the EPA's 70-ppt level is five times less protective of cancer risks than typical standards call for". The report further shows that predetermined "safe levels" of PFOA vary greatly from state to state.
The private sector has a role to play in providing innovation and technology that can mitigate these issues and help both state and federal organizations stay up to date. Expect to see more of that in 2017.
3. Private Industry Began Focusing on Water Efficiency and Reuse - and It's Starting to Work:
Droughts and tainted water took over the headlines this year, and those are incredibly important stories. But, water waste among private industry fell below the fold. Many big companies are still using outdated, traditional technologies that waste large amounts of water. In high-income countries like the U.S., private industry uses 60 percent more water than all the farms or households combined, and the demand for water by industry is expect to skyrocket 400 percent by 2050. Water shortages and poor water quality can cause production shortfalls, price volatility, higher energy costs, regulatory issues and social unrest. In fact, Coca-Cola CEO and Chairman Muhtar Kent has said that "if you aren't responsibly managing water in your business, you won't be in business 20 years from now."
Coca-Cola, today a trailblazer in water use, is among those companies that have experienced an expensive lesson about water management in today's times of heightened water awareness, shortage and conflict. The company experienced disruptive consequences when it was accused of misusing water in India during a drought, suffering plant closures and damage to their reputation. Now, Coca-Cola - along with other companies including Procter & Gamble and Archer Daniel Midland - are among those working to reduce their environmental impact by relying on highly efficient reverse osmosis technologies like Desalitech's reverse osmosis systems, with water recovery rates of up to 98 percent to significantly reduce water consumption and wastewater production.
There's increased interest in water efficiency and technology across the board - the lines between public and private sectors are blurring, with public sector utility leaders turning to innovative water companies to see what they can offer in terms of new technology and solutions. Also, Nestlé has taken the unusual approach of internally creating a "shadow price" for water for its local operations, to ensure water is given a value to make it psychologically more difficult to waste. The water reuse and sustainability goals of top corporations are more important than ever, as is an increasingly water savvy public that will hold industry leaders accountable.
4. The U.S. Has a New President-Elect - and Only Time Will Reveal the Effects on Climate Policy:
No year-in-review piece this year is complete without mention of the chaotic presidential election. President-Elect Donald Trump's position on climate change is quite unclear. While he's expressed on Twitter that "the concept of global warming" was created by China and has selected climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, his soon-to-be First Daughter Ivanka Trump plans to make climate change one of her "signature issues". In fact, she and the president-elect have already met with climate change activist and former Vice President Al Gore to discuss climate issues.
With this significant uncertainty surrounding environmental efforts, it is more critical than ever for private industry and municipalities to take the lead on preserving our most precious resources. I encourage President-Elect Trump to take a look at the government incentives around energy conservation that have been successful, like the EPA's Energy Star program and Federal Tax Credits to help offset energy costs. None of those government incentives exist for water conservation. To encourage more water reuse and conversion - an economic benefit as much as an environmental one - the federal government needs to create policies to make it happen.
In the face of environmental threats and dwindling resources, we need to take serious steps to reuse water. It was a tumultuous year in water, which further underscores the role that water innovation will have to play in 2017.